Making banking available to everyone

Every person has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, with access to healthcare, food and housing. Access to the financial system is intrinsic to this. ABN AMRO is working to make banking universally available, including to people who fall outside society’s usual parameters.

Every day, ABN AMRO’s branch on Dam Square in Amsterdam opens its doors to a diverse range of customers. Located at the heart of the city centre, it not only serves local residents and business owners – expats, people with temporary resident status and people working in the sex industry also find their way to this prominently located bank branch. The staff help them with a variety of services, such as setting up bank accounts. “We sometimes find the way blocked by rules,” branch manager Sabine Elgenedi-’t Hoen explains. For instance, a prospective customer might not yet have a Dutch ‘citizen service number’, or BSN. Non-residents such as refugees and expats need this unique government-issued personal identifier to set up a bank account. Yet Elgenedi-’t Hoen and her people will not turn the customer away simply because he or she does not have a BSN. They understand how much people need their bank accounts, for example to pay for their healthcare and housing. “Saying no is the easy way out. By listening to the customer, and asking the right questions, we do what we can for them – for example by sharing what we know.”

Evolving government rules

When handling banking matters, staff at the branch often deal with complex and evolving legislation, for example the rules for refugees with resident status. Helping sex workers can also require a closer look at the rules: their line of work commonly involves cash payments, which are then deposited with the bank. This creates a potential conflict with the government’s transaction requirements for banks, to prevent money laundering for example. To help solve such issues, the branch works with Risk & Compliance Officer Annemiek Kishna-Zomer. She stays up-to-date on the latest laws and regulations, and offers active input on customers’ questions, drawing on her experience from across the bank’s operations. “Sometimes it helps to point someone in the right direction. For example, the municipal rules can be difficult to understand for someone who’s only recently arrived in the Netherlands.” 

The right decision

Understanding the rules is also useful when helping customers such as sex workers, Elgenedi-’t Hoen explains. “For sex workers, it’s important to use the legal system for their banking affairs: it makes them more independent and gives them a stronger position in society.” While some banks turn them away, ABN AMRO sees no reason in principle for not helping them. “They deposit large sums in cash, so what? So does the local bakery. What matters is the transparency of the transactions. For example, we tell them that they need to use the account not only for deposits and withdrawals, but also for paying their recurring monthly expenses.”

Kishna-Zomer stresses that she not only helps to solve specific questions from customers, she also supports the bank’s employees. “They like having someone to discuss things with, to bounce ideas off.” Elgenedi-’t Hoen sees this with her people. “Our staff know that they can call Annemiek and then make a well-considered decision that takes the customer’s interests into account.”

Helping as many people as we can

Experiences are shared and used to improve future services, Kishna-Zomer continues. For example, based on the experiences at the Dam branch and elsewhere, a special desk has been set up to help underage asylum seekers. Kishna-Zomer explains, “The child’s guardian can go online and apply for an account on their behalf. In the past, the guardian would need to take the child along to fill out all the forms at the branch, where it was usually busy. This could be quite a hassle, particularly for the children.” The online service has become a success, and ABN AMRO is constantly investigating other possibilities for making banking available to more people. One of the things we are looking at is to offer temporary bank accounts,” Elgenedi-’t Hoen explains, “Our goal is to help as many people as we can.”

Boris Pavloff - Financial Advisor Mortgages/Income & Wealth, ABN AMRO

"In the past, ABN AMRO didn’t make banking easy for the deaf and hard of hearing. If you wanted mortgage advice, for example, you had to make an appointment by phone. And once you’d navigated your way through that, you had to take along your own sign language interpreter to the meeting. 

Technological developments have made banking a lot easier. Many banking matters can now be managed online or by email. But we can do even better. That’s why we’ve launched a new service: Advice in Sign Language. The team is made up of five people who can all communicate in sign language, and we can now offer deaf clients personal financial advice by webcam or at one of the bank’s branches – advice about mortgages, income, wealth or about daily banking activities.

And we want to do even more. Since August, all videos that have been posted on ABN AMRO’s website are subtitled. And we plan to offer our webinars in sign language in future.

As a deaf employee, I’m feeling more and more understood at the bank. My colleagues see the added value my disability gives me. They involve me in complex issues and I’m treated equally. I’m glad to see that ABN AMRO is making a special effort to fully include people with a disability. And I’m extra proud of ABN AMRO since Dutch sign language is not yet officially recognised in the Netherlands."